It came straight out of the blue. One moment, the rhythmic ticking of cuckoo clocks above the low, steady swing of their grandfather clock’s gold pendulum; the next, a sudden whump, the heart-clenching report of balled snow smacking glass. Anya rose sharply, threw her knitting into the rocking chair, and glared out at the halted hordes of helpers.
Dear God, how many times must she warn them not to play so close to the cottage? At least once more, that was clear. She made her way out of the sewing room to the front door, muttering all the way.
Outside, two score elves stood chastened in the snow, eyes downcast, shoulders slumped. Some held their caps over their crotches or let them hang listlessly from their hands. Bald pates glistened in the sun. Karlheinz moped forward and made a shamefaced confession.
In her kindest voice, Anya said, “It hardly matters who threw the snowball, does it?”
They shook their heads.
“I’m old. My system doesn’t take kindly to shocks. It’s fine to let loose on your day off. But please. Not so close to the cottage. You’ve got that whole expanse out there to play in.” She pulled her shawl about her shoulders and gestured to the commons and beyond. Her hand, she noticed, was frail and arthritic, its dexterity lost in the passage of years.
It was cold out here. Her cheeks tingled. Her ears rang with the faint whine of fresh snow in still air.
But no. The sounds she heard came and went. Not the steady throb of winter but high discrete pulses, like the tremolo of distant violins, like zephyrs wafting over harpstrings.
She lifted her eyes. Out past the skating pond, out beyond the elves’ quarters, above the tops of the tallest trees that tickled the sky’s underbelly, a black dot hung in the distance, growing imperceptibly larger.
Love swelled warm within her.
As effortlessly as a morning glory opens to the sun, Anya smiled.
Fritz raised his eyes to Mrs. Claus. Her left hand gripped the porch railing. Her right froze in mid-gesture as she gazed into the sky.
He was the first to notice her radiance, the first to divine the reason for it. But the others quickly caught fire. Bright green caps, buoyed by whoops and shouts, pancaked into the air. Fritz endured with good humor the sixfold embrace of Heinrich the dollmaker. On all sides, his bearded brethren leaped and hopped about or attempted cartwheels in the snow. Mostly, they jumped for joy, pointing ecstatically to the heavens and rolling out shouts of welcome for their returning master.
Fritz turned about and looked up at the long brown insect struggling through the sky. Santa’s whip was an eyelash, his team the third part of a centipede, himself not much larger than a ladybug rearing on her hind legs.
The elf’s eyes brimmed with joy.
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